Jewish Literature and Music in US public schools
The March 2023 edition of my book “Ethnic Studies in K12 schools: The Jewish module” is now available. It is intended to be taught in US public schools, side-by-side with the Palestinian narrative. Only the latter has presently the support of the National Education Association (NEA), the largest union in the US. Talk to the NEA: request to include also the Jewish narrative in public schools. Without teaching side-by-side both perspectives of the Arab-Israeli conflict, education is reduced to indoctrination.
My book is available for free reading and download for all – teachers, students, parents and the general public – at:
It will always remain available for free reading and download.
The book has a new section (in Lesson 4) about “Jewish Literature and Music” to familiarize students – Jews and non-Jews – with the Jewish and Israeli cultural heritage. Just to give the reader a feeling of it, the “Jewish Music” part is presented below (the “Jewish Literature” part is too long to include in this article):
Jewish Music – the Eastern Mediterranean style
Bracha Zefira (1910-1990) was a pioneering Israeli folk singer, songwriter, musicologist and actress. She was born in Jerusalem in 1910 in a family of Yemenite Jews. Her father had emigrated from Yemen in year 1887 and settled in a Yemenite neighborhood in Jerusalem.
She brought Yemenite and other Mizrahi and Sephardi Jewish music into the musical life of the Jewish public at large, both in Israel, in Europe and the US. Her repertoire included more than 400 songs: Yemenite, Bukharan, Persian, Ladino and North African Jewish folk songs.
Her personal and musical path was unique. She was orphaned of both parents by the age of three: her mother died when she was born and her father died from typhus. She was raised by a succession of Mizrahi and Sephardi Jewish foster families in Jerusalem. She was gifted with a rich voice and a natural inclination to remember and annotate the melodies she was surrounded with in her youth. She was unique in that she sought the collaboration of the best classically-trained musicians, to incorporate the Mizrahi and Sephardi songs into the “serious” musical repertoire. She had a long relationship with the pianist Nahum Vardi, whom she met in Europe in 1929, while she was studying theater performance. She usually asked him to accompany her songs with improvisations at the piano. They ended up marrying. They divorced ten years later when he refused to accompany her songs with arrangements from other composers (instead of his own) …
Her work with classically-trained composers made possible the introduction of her repertoire into the classical concert arena. The interest was mutual: for them, Bracha Zefira was a walking encyclopedia of melodies and rhythms they were eager to integrate into their compositions.
There are not many recordings available from that era long ago. Here is a short one, with Zefira singing a Ladino melody accompanied with an orchestral arrangement by composer Paul Ben-Haim. The recording is from a public performance in year 1949:
(Click on the above hyperlink, or type it: the image below is only to confirm you arrived at the right place)
Streets in Jerusalem and other cities in Israel carry her name and the Israeli Post Office issued a commemorative stamp of her, which is shown in the video.
Bracha Zefira, together with the composer Paul Ben-Haim, were pioneers of the “Eastern Mediterranean” or “Israeli” style in music that began developing in the 1930s and remained in a prominent position well into the late 1950s.
Bucharan Jews: Their name comes from the former Central Asian Emirate of Bukhara (now Uzbekistan). The Bucharan Jews called themselves “Bnei Israel” or “Children of Israel”, to indicate that their ancestors came from the ancient biblical Kingdom of Israel, located in the hills and mountains of Samaria (today’s northern and central West Bank), who were taken in captivity by the Assyrians around 720 BCE. The first Bucharan Jews that migrated back to Israel arrived in the 1870s and 1880s, establishing the Bukharim quarter, or neighborhood, in Jerusalem. Today, about 160,000 Bucharan Jews live in Israel.
Persian Jews: Are the descendants of Jews who were historically associated with the Persian Empire (now Iran), dating back to biblical times. Many Persian Jews began arriving back to Israel in the early 1900s. Today, there are about 200,000-250,000 Persian Jews living in Israel.
Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984), was born in Germany. He was an accomplished pianist, composer and orchestra conductor. In 1924 he was appointed as Kapellmeister and choir conductor at the Augsburg Stadttheater, a position previously held by both Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. Over seven years he conducted some 40 operas and operettas, until he lost this position with the rise of the Nazism. In 1933, with the beginning of the “Boycott the Jews” campaign in Germany, he emigrated to Israel, where he Hebraized his name to Paul Ben-Haim (his birth name was Paul Frankenburger.) His sister, Rosa, perished in Auschwitz’s concentration camp.
He composed his first symphony in 1939-1940. This was the first symphony composed in the Land of Israel. He dedicated it to the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra (then known as the “Palestine Orchestra”, before the Jewish independence from the British), that had been founded a mere three years before in Tel-Aviv, in 1936. It is a magnificent symphony, composed in classical tonal style. Click on the following link to listen to a recent rendition by the Symphony Orchestra of the Berlin University of the Arts:
The symphony is thirty minutes long and has three movements. Its first movement, “Allegro energico”, evokes the tragedy unfolding in Europe, with the beginning of World War II. It has a short basic motif that dominates the whole movement, similar to Beethoven’s main motif in the first movement of his 5th symphony. The second movement, “Molto calmo e cantabile”, is pastoral, and elegiac and lyrical at times. The final movement, “Presto con fuoco”, is like a whirlwind of rhythm, with alternating short respites.
Prior to the 1930s there was no “serious” concert music in Palestine. The arrival during this decade of many classically-trained musicians fleeing the horrors of Nazism, changed this completely. In Western Europe contemporary music had become mainly atonal, did not know national boundaries nor were their composers interested in including local, national, characteristics: listening to this music one could never tell if the composer lived in Europe or in America. But another trend also developed, represented by musicians like Bela Bartok (Hungary, 1881-1945) and Zoltan Kodaly (Hungary, 1882-1967), where ethnic, folk-music, elements were integrated in their works.
The newly arrived Jewish musicians from Europe faced the same dilemma, but to them the decision was clear: they had fled the horrors of Europe, they wanted to bury and forget anything related to that continent, they had come to a new country, Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel) and they eagerly began looking to integrate elements of the Eastern culture into their music. They found these elements in the Mizrahi and Sephardi Jewish songs and melodies. But how to integrate them into the “serious” music? These songs and melodies were based on scales different from the Western scales one finds in the classical music of Mozart and Beethoven. The solution? Go back to the ancient pre-classical music principles: modal music. Modal-based music was very versatile and in the same way that one could write music using the Mixolydian, Dorian and Lydian modes, these musicians could also integrate the “Yemenite” and “Ladino” scales into “serious” orchestral music. And so was born the “Eastern Mediterranean” Israeli style that became the hegemonic style of writing music in Israel, from the 1940s till the 1960s.
A classic example of this “Eastern Mediterranean” Israeli style is Paul Ben-Haim’s piece “Kabbalat Shabbat”. If you love Johan Sebastian Bach’s sacred music, his cantatas and oratories, you will enjoy also Ben-Haim’s “Kabbalat Shabbat”, although it sounds very different from Bach’s music because of its use of modal composition.
Use the following link to listen to the whole piece:
The image that follows is to help you confirm that you got to the right place:
“Kabbalat Shabbat” was first performed in the Lincoln Center Symphony Hall in New York, in year 1968. The work consists of 15 short movements:
1) Introduction and Chorus: Psalm 98
2) Lighting of the Sabbath Candles
3) Sabbath Hymn, “L’kha dodi”
4) Barechu (Praise ye the Lord)
5) Sh’ma Yisrael
6) Ve-ahav’ta (Thou Shalt Love)
7) Mi khamokha (Who is Like unto Thee)
8) Ve-shamru (They Shall Keep the Sabbath)
10) Shalom rav al Yisrael, “Grant us Peace”
11) Yih’yu le-ratson (Guide me)
14) Bayom ha-hu (On that Day)
15) Concluding Hymn and Benediction, “Adon olam”
If you want a detailed analysis of which and how the modal scales were used in this composition, I refer you to the doctoral dissertation by Holly Dalrymple .
 Holly Dalrymple, “From Germany to Palestine: a comparison of two choral works by Paul Ben-Haim – Joram and Kabbalat Shabbat”, University of North Texas, August 2013. A link to download this dissertation is: